Russian Troops Are Taking Putin’s Orders to Demilitarize Ukraine Literally

Russian strikes have hammered facilities that produce heavy gear the Ukrainian armed forces desperately need.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A missile and smoke from an airstrike in Ukraine
A missile and smoke from an airstrike in Ukraine
A missile flies over as dark smoke rises during an airstrike in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on May 3. Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia’s massive missile barrage across Ukraine on Tuesday night, sending projectiles slamming into targets across the country—including a railway junction in the western city of Lviv, a key node for weapons shipments—comes amid increasing signs that the Kremlin is intensifying targeting of the country’s most important defense production areas, according to Ukrainian officials and experts.

Russian strikes have targeted major Ukrainian industrial bases and key sites of Ukraine’s defense industry in an effort to crush Kyiv’s homegrown military capabilities and give Moscow’s struggling forces an edge in the fight for control of eastern Ukraine. And it’s also increasing Ukraine’s desire for high-end weapons systems from the West as Russia ramps up attacks. 

A Ukrainian official told Foreign Policy that Russia has destroyed or badly damaged an anti-ship missile facility near Kyiv, the Malyshev tank factory in Kharkiv, and heavy industrial complexes in the cities of Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv. The Ukrainians are in especially dire need of multiple launch rocket systems, artillery, tanks, and armored personnel vehicles because of Russian strikes against their facilities. 

Russia’s massive missile barrage across Ukraine on Tuesday night, sending projectiles slamming into targets across the country—including a railway junction in the western city of Lviv, a key node for weapons shipments—comes amid increasing signs that the Kremlin is intensifying targeting of the country’s most important defense production areas, according to Ukrainian officials and experts.

Russian strikes have targeted major Ukrainian industrial bases and key sites of Ukraine’s defense industry in an effort to crush Kyiv’s homegrown military capabilities and give Moscow’s struggling forces an edge in the fight for control of eastern Ukraine. And it’s also increasing Ukraine’s desire for high-end weapons systems from the West as Russia ramps up attacks. 

A Ukrainian official told Foreign Policy that Russia has destroyed or badly damaged an anti-ship missile facility near Kyiv, the Malyshev tank factory in Kharkiv, and heavy industrial complexes in the cities of Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv. The Ukrainians are in especially dire need of multiple launch rocket systems, artillery, tanks, and armored personnel vehicles because of Russian strikes against their facilities. 

“We needed that [heavy equipment] because the Russians destroyed all of our facilities,” said the Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak to the media. “It’s a full-scale war. We are losing them each day, and we just need to re-complete our units.”

The Russian strikes represent a shift in strategy that has picked up after a series of embarrassing military setbacks during two months of war that, combined with stiff and effective Ukrainian resistance, prevented the Kremlin’s forces from capturing Kyiv and toppling the Ukrainian government. But the strategy has its roots early in the invasion, experts said, as Russian President Vladimir Putin declared his intention to “de-Nazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine when he announced a military operation in the Donbas that saw the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. Early in the invasion, Russia conducted a series of strikes against the assembly plant of Antonov, a Ukrainian military transport aircraft manufacturer in Kyiv, killing two people. 

“They have a target set in Ukraine, and part of that target set are things that they believe fall under the demilitarization mission,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with CNA, a think tank. “When Putin declared the two goals in Ukraine as de-Nazification and demilitarization, the Russian military took that on pretty literally: Just strike key military infrastructure and things and facilities that are part of the military industrial complex.”

Ukraine, once considered the heart of the Soviet Union’s defense industry, has an outsized footprint of Cold War-era military production facilities. The Ukrainian defense industry was consolidated under a state-owned company that since 2010 has done the bulk of supplying equipment to the military, including the development of armored vehicles, fixed-wing aircraft, and domestically produced anti-tank weapons. Efforts to hit Ukrainian fuel depots and production facilities have been challenged by Ukrainian forces moving their supplies around to bedevil Russian forces. 

Kofman, the CNA expert, said Russia has appeared to strike mainly at what it can identify as parts of the defense and aerospace sectors, tank production and repair, and some storage facilities for fuel and ammunition. A Russian official claimed on Friday that Russia’s troops had destroyed the Artyom space rocket plant in Kyiv, although a senior U.S. defense official and Ukrainian officials appeared to contradict that, indicating that the cruise missile strikes against the Ukrainian capital instead hit a residential area, killing one journalist.

The massive Russian invasion has quickly spiraled into a military quagmire for Moscow, which reportedly expected to take Kyiv in a matter of days and install a pro-Russian government with little Ukrainian resistance. Kofman said the Ukrainians are still likely going to be able to repair and service basic equipment, but they will be mostly powerless to deal with military or industrial facilities on territory that Russia is occupying or besieging, such as Mariupol’s Azovstal steel factory on the Sea of Azov coast, where hundreds of civilians remain trapped as Russian forces are storming the maze-like facility. 

But Russia ramping up strikes on Ukraine’s defense industry could also signal its intention to gain the upper hand in what has become a more drawn-out war of attrition, as Russian forces bleed their own forces, supplies, and stocks of ammunition, while Western countries ramp up military assistance to Ukraine to help fend off the Russian invasion. 

“What we think they’re trying to do is to get at the ability of the Ukrainians to replenish their own stores and to reinforce themselves,” the senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon. “So, for instance, we’re seeing attempted attacks on electrical power facilities, perhaps because the Russians believe that if they can knock out some of that electricity, they can affect the ability of trains, for instance, to move.”

Russia is running low on precision-guided munitions and will struggle to refill its own military stocks as sweeping Western sanctions cut it off from global supply chains. 

“As Russia has entered this war of attrition phase, their own defense industry can’t even make precision munitions anymore because of sanctions,” said Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe who now holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank. “They will at least try to degrade Ukraine’s ability to produce new military supplies.”

Still, Hodges said Russia’s strikes targeting Ukraine’s defense industry likely won’t give it any decisive advantage in the war, in part because Russia is running out of its own stocks as fast or faster. 

“In this war of attrition, it boils down to how long can the Russians sustain this,” he said. “They don’t have unlimited supplies.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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